For the last 27 years, Geno Auriemma has worked diligently to build a foundation for professional success as UConn women’s basketball coach. He has done extraordinary work, the architect of seven national champions and 13 Final Four teams.
Upon this foundation has come great personal fortune and fame. As they say in the trade, he is a brand name, one that conjures images of achievement and leadership. Wine, spaghetti sauce and restaurants bear his name, companies he endorses, such as Nike, use it to better themselves.
Life has been very good to him.
But last week, NBA security official Kelley Hardwick filed suit in New York, claiming Auriemma, spurned when he allegedly tried to kiss her in the hallway of a Russian hotel in 2009, conspired to ruin her career by having her dismissed from the detail that will guard Auriemma his 2012 Olympic team in London this summer.
The parties contesting this job discrimination suit are in the midst of a standoff, peering at the other, armed they say with enough incriminating evidence to bring the other down in court.
Will the case be settled before going to trial? No one is saying.
But while some theorize the suit is more about Hardwick attempting to right wrongs with the NBA, which she claims has failed to promote her during her decade with the league, it is Auriemma’s name that glares brightest in the neon.
Truth is, for many who would judge this case in the court of public opinion, the key may not be the job frustration at the core of the Hardwick’s suit. It will be the sensationalized kiss, the spurned provocation that Hardwick says embarrassed Auriemma so much it spurred him to bring her down.
That is not a light Auriemma would want to be seen in.
“People that haven’t looked at him [Auriemma] before will be looking at him now, more closely, through a different set of glasses,” said Rick Cerrone, the former senior director of media relations for the New York Yankees (1996-2006) and now a major consultant in media and marketing affairs.
What is at stake for Auriemma seems far greater than any championship. In this battle of perception, Auriemma [Hardwick, as well] are at risk of having careers and reputations sullied by half-truths, non-truths or real truths.
“I see a lot of similarities in Geno’s case with that of Roger Clemens,” said Adam Nisenson, the co-president of Active Imagination, a health and sports marketing company in Houston. “I live in Los Angeles now, but I went to school at the University of Texas and when I heard he [Clemens] was acquitted [of perjury] I was thrilled. Was he guilty? I don’t know, but in my eyes he wasn’t [Clemens attended Texas].
“What I am getting at is this: in the eyes of UConn fans in the state of Connecticut, Geno can probably never do wrong because of who he is; the status he has attained. So for that reason [if he is found innocent] I think he is safe regionally [for marketing and endorsements]. But nationally, the view of who he is will be skewed [among fans and companies].”
Cerrone, who dealt daily managing crisis situations during his years with the Steinbrenner Yankees, has some advice for Auriemma.
“Part of Geno’s problem, and it may be part of the solution, is that there is little he can really do [to defend himself],” Cerrone said. “In some regards, he can use the law suit as a shield for not saying anything about the situation. But as far as everything he does from this day forward, this is what I would say to him: Be careful, especially in what he says and how her treats the media. I’ve always told people in his situation that you need to act like Jackie Robinson did by just letting things go.”
By doing so, Cerrone believes, Auriemma will continue to cultivate the good will he may need to overcome negative public perception, and, most importantly, continue his work at UConn. Cerrone says that’s the biggest danger he may face.
“Ultimately, the most damaging thing to him is if this would damage his ability to bring players to UConn,” Cerrone said. “If we see down the road that recruiting has been less than UConn is accustomed, then you can say that its where it has hurt him the most. It will have impacted his ability to do his job at the level he’s doing it at. Remember, he is recruiting young women. That could be a problem.
“What I would tell Coach Auriemma, and it wouldn’t be sugar-coated, is that his greatest assets are his reputation and how he chooses to conduct himself moving forward. You certainly can’t change your past, but you can alter or influence the future. If he has the reputation that it appears he does, and claims to have, he needs to rely on that [to help him].”
Nisenson, whose wife is from West Hartford, is well-acquainted with Auriemma and his success story. His company has helped franchises like the NFL’s Houston Texas build and maintain its image.
“Yes, I have seen it all,” he said about his experiences with clients in crisis.
Nisenson believes Auriemma is an iconic force in Connecticut, but his national presence, as a potential product endorser or spokesman, is limited enough to shield him from the type of outcry that brought Tiger Woods or Kobe Bryant down.
“What is interesting with this situation is, Auriemma is a women’s basketball coach,” Nisenson said. “I am sure, although I know it’s purely speculative, that the women he has coached and those he has coached with will come forward to speak on his behalf [at a possible trial]. They will say that something like this [the alleged kiss and subsequent redemptive action] has never happened, that there is no pattern or history [to the behavior].
“It’s going to be a “he-said, she-said” thing and I ultimately believe that Geno will be OK. But the truth is, I have never viewed him outside the region as much of a marketing force. So that being said, I don’t see this situation hurting him. I think [if he is innocent] he will bullet-proof. He’s a sports God, a Hall of Famer who has managed to have his teams play basketball like no other team plays it. UConn and Tennessee women’s basketball have put women’s basketball on the map. They made it OK for guys to watch it.
“It [the bad notoriety] may just pass. This woman may just be unhappy. But who knows, it could even result in him being fired [if proven in court he helped inhibited Hardwick’s career]. But if he just lies low, most people won’t even remember it happened.”
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